Friday, March 24, 2000

Passenger pigeon met demise 100 years ago

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The road to extinction passed, regretably enough, through Ohio.

        It was cool, 55 degrees, that day 100 years ago on farmland near Sargents, in southern Ohio's Pike County.

        Press Clay Southworth was just 14 years old when he persuaded his mother to let him take the 12-gauge shotgun and shoot the bird that was eating the corn on the family farm.

        “I found the bird perched high in the tree and brought it down without much damage to its appearance,” Press Southworth would write 68 years later at the age of 82. “When I took it to the house Mother exclaimed — "It's a passenger pigeon!'”

        Young Press Southworth shot this passenger pigeon on March 24, 1900, but it would take more than decade for anyone to determine that Mr. Southworth's quarry that day was the last passenger pigeon ever recorded from the wild.

        The Southworth passenger pigeon survives today as a specimen at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus; it is called Buttons, because the woman who prepared the specimen used black shoe buttons for its eyes.

        The Ohio Historical Society is using the occasion of the 100th anniversary today to raise the awareness of visitors and school children to the spectre of extinction, calling the anniversary an “unfortunate milestone in history.”

        And just 14 years later, on Sept. 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha was discovered lying on the bottom of her cage at 1 p.m.

        Environmentalists and conservation groups all point to the passenger pigeon and its extinction as a benchmark, as a lesson in the perils of arrogance.

        Dr. David Olson, a conservation biologist with the World Wildlife Fund in Wash ington D.C., says the passenger pigeon was a warning to conservationists about how quickly extinction can occur, especially when hastened by the hand of man.

        “Passenger pigeons are a real red flag for us,” said Dr. Olson. “Their precipitous decline is really alarming. It went in just a few years from literally millions to almost none.”

        Passenger pigeons were a super-abundant bird, perhaps the most populous bird ever to inhabit the planet and certainly North America, A.W. Schorger, in his definitive book on the life history of passenger pigeons (The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction, 1955), estimates its population at 3 to 5 billion birds before they declined.

        Naturalists and artists waxed poetic on the migratory events of passenger pigeons overhead. They darkened the skies, blotting out the sun; they were swift, their flight reaching speeds of 60 mph; and their passing sounded like thunder. John James Audubon

        wrote of traveling in Kentucky in 1813 and watching a flock pass overhead for three full days.

        State legislatures saw no need to protect the species. It seemed akin to protecting ants. A committee of the Ohio Legislature in 1857 was fairly typical when it asserted, “The passenger pigeon needs no protection.”

        So what happened?

        The birds were slaughtered. They were killed for food, for their feathers, for sport. Forests began disappearing, which the vast numbers depended on for mast — beechnuts and acorns, among other nuts and berries. When their numbers dwindled, the species passed a threshold from which it could not recover.

        It happened quickly. By the 1870s and '80s, they were becoming scarce, sightings infrequent. It was a species that needed abundance to survive, from its feeding forays to its colonial nesting behavior. Without vast numbers, it slipped below a sustainable threshold.

        “Passenger pigeons are a great example of where they reached that threshold and they just kept going,” said Dr. Olson.

        But it is the passenger pigeon's legacy that endures as a conservation ethic.

        Robert Glotzhober, curator of natural history at the Ohio Historical Society, said the lesson posited 100 years ago is that we are tipping the balance towards extinction.

        “There's a concern there,” said Mr. Glotzhober. “What will our world be as times goes by and we have more extinctions and fewer species? Ecologists suggest that the more you simplify systems of living organisms the less stable they become. That means you're more likely to have massive die-offs, starvations, loss of additional species, increase of pests, all kinds of things. So the greater the diversity, usually the more stable. To sustain human life that's what we want, a stable system.”

        Scientists need to get a handle on where those thresholds exist, what they might be and what can be done to prevent them from being crossed, said Dr. Olson.

        “The broader implication is that there are many other species that are seemingly abundant but may be just as fragile below a certain point,” said Dr. Olson. “They can quickly decline despite protection and apparently abundant habitat. Neotropical migrant songbirds are a good example.”

        Before the turn of the century it became apparent that passenger pigeons were far and few between. By the turn of the century, there were no sightings. Rewards were offered. By 1910, a standing reward of $1,000, made by individuals, was offered for information leading to a nesting pair or colony. The Cincinnati Zoo was offering a $1,000 reward for a male passenger pigeon that would mate with its female pigeon, Martha. The rewards were never claimed.

        While the passenger pigeon could not be saved, the zoo did save one of its aviaries in 1974. It was where Martha lived.

        Built in 1875, the aviary was moved, remodeled and turned into a Passenger Pigeon Memorial. While three mounted specimens and one skin are on display in the memorial, Martha herself is not.

        Martha had been promised to the Smithsonian Institution when she died; she was packed in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to Washington D.C., where she is on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

        Dave Oehler, head of the zoo's aviculture department, said the memorial, located across from the Cat House, is a place for reflection.

        “The building itself is very quiet,” said Mr. Oehler. “It's not only a sobering experience, but you can spend some time in there and reflect on what happened. It's a nice, quiet little place to come. Then you can go back out and enjoy the wildlife.”


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